We hadn’t been alone in 30 years.
Sure, there was the odd overnight, and once we even got the better part of a week in Italy. But my husband and I hadn’t been alone – really alone – since we started with the kids, three decades earlier.
Our first had left home almost 10 years ago; our second several years later. But our youngest was just leaving home now. What, exactly, was the game plan, with a house suddenly bereft of progeny?
It wasn’t that we hadn’t realized this day was coming. (We had had 30 years to figure it out.) But I guess I assumed it wouldn’t be that different, that dramatic. Maybe the house would be a little quieter. Maybe there would be fewer little piles of belongings scattered everywhere. Maybe we could count on the brie cheese still being in the refrigerator when we looked.
I was right: The house was quieter. Sweatshirts and paperbacks and hand cream stayed where they were put. The brie cheese didn’t vaporize on its own.
But the quiet was too intense; it permeated everything. When I saw the brie cheese still untouched on the refrigerator shelf, it made me feel wistful, rather than victorious. And the house felt a little too organized; would little old-lady knitted doilies and protective plastic for the couch cushions be next?
I wasn’t prepared for this. And in 30 years of striving to be the best mom I could be, I’d never really thought through the next part.
How had we not noticed, amidst all the commotion that is parenting, that eventually, it comes to an end? In the same way that the “before” parenting was now so far removed that it no longer seemed real, the “after” was this elusive never-never land in which we hadn’t expected to find ourselves.
Of course, just because the kids had all left home didn’t mean I was through being a mother. They still needed me; they still talked to me; they still came home frequently. Still, they weren’t living underfoot. They had their own relationships, their own lives and their own sectional sofas.
We were entering a new, unexplored stage. I was Magellan, but a Magellan who had been prematurely tossed onto a ship, without a map, much less a lifejacket.
There were books that promised to guide a smooth path to empty nest syndrome. (It worried me a little that it was a syndrome; I hadn’t realized, and wondered vaguely if it came with accompanying maladies, side effects as yet unknown.) And apparently, I wasn’t alone in being unprepared, or in needing guidance; who knew that there were enough books for a distinct genre, several full shelves, at the bookstore?
I read the books with only slightly less intensity than three decades years earlier when I’d read frantically about how to get your infant to sleep. (It was almost as successful.)
The books counseled letting go of expectations and grabbing hold of your new passions.
They referred to empty nesters as seniors and explained how, going forward, they (we) should meet their (our) elderly needs. But those of us who jumped on the baby bandwagon early on are only in our 40s, 50s, or at most 60s. We’re getting on, but not quite ready yet for the dentures, the afghans pulled up over our arthritic knees. My “elderly needs” didn’t feel like the problem: It was just too damn lonely with all the kids gone.
And most of the books didn’t seem written for me. They assumed that relations with your hormonal teens were frayed at best; that you were puffing out a sigh of relief to see them depart. What if you had mostly enjoyed your nestlings? On that possibility, the books were curiously mum.
To be fair, maybe I didn’t give the books a fair chance to cure my syndrome: One of them, which turned out to be a tad more religious than I had anticipated, insisted that the roots of the problem were “Satan’s lies” informing my self-worth. Another book instructed on how I could be the “grooviest grandparent” in town, about which I might have been more enthusiastic had there been any grandchildren visible on the horizon.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to bury my other interests and hobbies while immersing in motherhood. After all, if I had retained more pastimes, I’d have more activities now to fill the gap. But in the throes of mothering, there had barely seemed enough time for working and parenting. Was I also meant to be learning macrame? How would the laundry have gotten done?
Also, what had my husband and I talked about 30 years earlier before we had kids? Would our conversations now wither into feeble reminiscences about our children’s past, and speculation about what they were now up to, which we would never again know with certainty?
Or were we meant to be spending this newfound time canoodling together? Should we be reigniting the romance of our youth, returning to candlelit dinners and long evenings spent gazing into each other’s eyes?
And what about just enjoying more alone time? Despite all the hoopla about the benefits of meditation and inner contemplation, there was that 2014 paper in Science that I couldn’t get out of my mind: Women would rather do what they called “mundane, external activities” than spend even 15 minutes with nothing to do but think. Rather than spend 15 minutes alone with their thoughts, 25% of women would rather get electric shocks! (And if it was bad for me, my husband had it worse: 67% of men opted for the electric shocks.)
For all those years of trying to be a good parent, was this empty nest now the door prize?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that empty nest syndrome was the goal of all that mothering.
If the mom stuff was successful, the fledglings left the nest and were able to fly on their own. A successful launch was the ultimate accolade for our parenting. We maybe should have noticed where the finish line was before starting the race, but we had done good.
And as for my sadness about the suddenly-too-empty nest, maybe the kids would no longer be the centerpiece, but education, travel, friends, and spouse had all, to some extent, been neglected for the past three decades. Maybe it was time to rekindle, not just interactions with my spouse, but all those connections and interests.
At the very least, it’s worth a try. And while I try, I get to eat the brie.